By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH, Associated Press
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinians on Thursday responded coolly to a White House announcement that President Barack Obama will not bring any bold new peace initiatives to the region next month, saying there is no hope for reviving serious negotiations unless the U.S. leader is personally involved.
The Palestinians' comments reflected their sense of desperation after four years of deadlocked peace efforts with Israel, and raised the pressure on Obama to extract new concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a setback for Netanyahu, a close political ally criticized Israel's settlement policies, saying continued construction deep inside the West Bank has undermined Israel's credibility and could threaten the country's long-term survival.
"We could pay a great price," Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, a senior member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, warned on Israeli Radio.
The White House said this week that Obama would make his first presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this spring, setting off speculation that he was coming to restart peace efforts.
On Wednesday, the White House moved quickly to play down expectations, saying the primary goal of the visit was to repair the strained relationship with Netanyahu, not to present a new diplomatic initiative. Both Obama and Netanyahu are just beginning new terms in office.
The Palestinians welcomed news of the visit, but implored Obama to take a more hands-on approach than he did during his first term.
"We believe he has good intentions, but in order for him to succeed, he should realize the reasons for the failure of the previous round of talks and avoid them," said Mohammed Ishtayeh, a senior Palestinian negotiator. "Mainly he needs to get involved personally and put real pressure on Israel."
Peace efforts remained frozen throughout Netanyahu's previous term, in large part because of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for a future state.
The Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build settlements, saying it is a sign of bad faith. With more than 500,000 Israelis living in the settlements, the Palestinians say hopes for partitioning the land into two separate countries are running out.
The Palestinians say the pre-1967 boundaries must be the basis for the border between Israel and a future Palestine, a position that has been endorsed by Obama and most of the international community. While Netanyahu has endorsed Palestinian statehood, he rejects a return to the 1967 lines and says talks should resume without any preconditions.
The Palestinians have blamed Obama in part for the current predicament. When Obama took office in early 2009, he promised to make Mideast peace a top priority and spoke out sharply against settlement construction.
Obama even managed to persuade Israel to impose a temporary slowdown on settlement building. But when the 10-month moratorium expired in late 2010, a new round of peace talks collapsed just weeks after they were launched. Negotiations have remained frozen.
Netanyahu has argued that the Palestinians have negotiated with previous Israeli governments while settlements were being built, and that even when he imposed a slowdown on construction, they waited for months before relaunching the short-lived talks.
But there has been little international sympathy.
In November, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines. Netanyahu responded by announcing plans to build thousands of new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, drawing harsh condemnations from his allies in the U.S. and Europe.
The Haaretz daily on Thursday, citing two unidentified officials, quoted Netanyahu's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, as warning that Israel's settlement policies were hurting its standing with key allies.
"It's impossible to explain the issue of settlement construction anyplace in the world," he was quoted as saying. "Construction in the settlements has become a diplomatic problem and is causing Israel to lose support even among its friends in the West."